How To Talk to a 10-Year-Old About Gaza

Explaining 'Collateral Damage,' 'Holocaust,' and 'History'

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By Leigh Shulman

Published August 12, 2014.

I was recently sitting at a hotel when my 10-year-old daughter Lila called my attention to the television. As part of the coverage of Israel’s incursion into Gaza, the news showed a child covered in bandages, limbs missing. It was one of the boys who had been caught in bombings on the beach.

“He’s just like me,” she said.

The look on her face killed me. How do you explain this conflict to a child?

Normally, I’m really good at responses. Like when Lila asked “Mama, what’s porn?” She saw the word on a blog post I was reading about dessert food porn. My method? Step one: break a topic into the most straightforward components. Step two: Answer as simply as possible, coloring my descriptions with as little of my opinion as possible.

The pornography question was easier.

The events happening between Gaza and Israel aren’t easily broken into components. History, politics, even basic facts polarize people to extremes. You cannot both believe Israel to be an aggressive force perpetrating a Holocaust and still describe those fighting as peace loving.

I, too, am not immune to the sway of personal opinion. I grew up Orthodox Jewish, learned Jewish history. I have family and friends who live in Israel now. In my personal history, Israel is the only place in the world that unequivocally accepts Jews. Even though I am no longer practicing Orthodox, Israel still represents home and safety. I want to believe that Israel acts morally and with conscience. Thus, Hamas must be wrong.

It is often the natural inclination of parents to want our children to mirror ourselves, but I do not want Lila to adopt my beliefs simply because I believe them. Nor do I want to censor what she sees, hears and reads. Far better she can turn to me when she has questions so I can help her process and understand. In turn, her honest and pure reactions force me to rethink my preconceived notions about how I see news and history related to Gaza and Israel.

“What is Gaza?” she begins. An apropos first question. It’s a piece of land… Where? In Israel? Beside Israel? Is Gaza it’s own country? I tell her it’s a place between Israel and Egypt where people are fighting. We look at a map together.

She follows with “What are they fighting about?” Much more difficult to answer. This one question raises a myriad of other questions. Who is fighting? Israel and Hamas? Palestinians? Are they fighting for land? Palestinian sovereignty? The right for Israel to exist?

I explain that there are two sides, and the people on each side very rarely agree on what has happened or how it happened. She knows I support Israel and has heard my stories of living there. She also sees how much it worries me when people accuse Israel of a holocaust and wants to know why.

“What is the Holocaust?”

Again, one simple question brings so much baggage with it.

I’ve heard Holocaust survivors speak. My friends’ grandparents told their tales of World War II over the shabbat table sometimes, and we listened respectfully. It was a mantra to never forget, never let it happen again. When I read that along with pro-Palestinian protests, anti-Semitic sentiment is rising. Synagogues and Jewish owned shops burn, and I wonder “Is history repeating itself?”

Worse, people accuse Israel of a genocide. That hits home. My immediate reaction is to completely and utterly reject any possibility of truth. No Jew would or could ever do anything so horrible. A holocaust is the anti-jew. Still, years of Jewish day school has taught me that in order to effect change in the world, we must examine our own actions first. Is it possible that Israel could act differently, react in a manner that causes less harm yet also protects Israel?

While I do not believe that Israel in any way intends to wipe out the Palestinian people, I cannot say with equal certainty that the Gaza invasion was necessary. There must be something Israel could have done differently to minimize the damage done to Palestinians. I cannot honestly tell Lila that yes, it’s ok when innocents die, because there is a greater cause for good.

“Collateral damage means the innocent people who die in a war,” I find myself saying. “If they didn’t do anything wrong, then why do we let them die?”

Politics and partisanship fall away when I have to look into my daughter’s eyes and explain why four boys her age were killed. She cannot understand the concept of collateral damage, and were I the mother of a child lost as such, I doubt I could forgive it. For every death in Gaza, that is another family united in the belief that Israel and Jews are the enemy, making peace a more distant possibility.

Together, Lila and I trace a path from our mutual confusion as we accept that living brings with it insolvable puzzles. Our task is to find ways to live with ambiguity.



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